My gut reaction was simply to post three paragraphs’ worth of profanity in lieu of a proper album review for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest, since it’s yet another highly anticipated 2011 release to land with a resounding thud. Setting aside the disappointment that Isbell’s follow-up to the under-appreciated, soulful Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is more or less a colossal bore, it’s at least a start to say that it isn’t quite as poor as his former bandmates’s latest, the Drive-By Truckers’s Go-Go Boots. But to damn Isbell with faint praise is still a shame.
During his tenure with the Truckers and on his solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch, Isbell proved himself a songwriter with a uniquely Southern point of view and rare thoughtfulness and insight. And on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, he found a backing band with the creativity to incorporate elements of Chitlin’ Circuit soul and sweaty, Southern bar rock into Americana conventions. Here We Rest loses entirely too many of those elements that have made Isbell such a singular Southern artist in favor of songwriting and musical arrangements that anyone from Ryan Adams to Josh Ritter could have put together.
The gentle acoustic strumming and structure of opener “Alabama Pines” specifically recalls the cockeyed folk songs from Ritter’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, but Isbell’s song lacks focus: After devoting an entire verse of “Alabama Pines” to avoiding traffic around the Talladega Superspeedway, he ends the song with a brief political diatribe about how “liberties we can’t do without seem to disappear like ghosts in the air.” The conceit of “We’ve Met” is only half-formed, with each verse shifting awkwardly from first impressions to reunions both pleasant and uncomfortable. Though it’s admirable that Isbell would attempt such an ambitious triptych structure, the lyrics fall across the melody in such a way that words are emphasized seemingly at random.
As a lyricist, Isbell has rarely misfired as badly as he does on “Codeine.” The song’s arrangement, with its rolling country shuffle and sing-along chorus, does all of the heavy lifting, attempting to make up for awful couplets like “If there’s two things that I hate/It’s having to cook and trying to date/And bustin’ our ass all day/To play hurry up and wait.” Despite name-checking particular cities and landmarks on songs like “Stopping By” and “Go It Alone,” too much of Isbell’s writing on Here We Rest simply lacks his authoritative, compelling perspective. In its place there’s the deadly dull “Daisy Mae” and an utterly pointless interstitial of pirate music. And the 400 Unit spends most of the album playing an anonymous brand of Americana, splitting the difference between Adams’s latter-day albums and the Jayhawks.
It’s on the songs that bring in the R&B influences that made Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit sing that Here We Rest finally showcases what it is that makes Isbell a distinctive talent. His cover of Mickey Buckins and George Jackson’s “Heart on a String” is lived-in and ferocious, with the 400 Unit laying down a thick funk groove that rivals anything the DAP Kings have done. Even better is “Never Could Believe,” a rollicking bit of piano blues that finds Isbell being as hard on himself as he is on the no-good woman who did him wrong. It’s easily the standout cut on the record, and it builds on the fearless approach to genre that made his previous album such a confident step toward artistic maturity. And it’s because “Never Could Believe” is the exception on an album of otherwise faceless post-No Depression country-rock that Here We Rest is such a monumental letdown.